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By Scott Miller, Senior Writer - CBS SportsLine.com
Feb. 22, 2006
 

JUPITER, Fla. -- So big fella, answer us this. How in the world were the St. Louis Cardinals able to pull off one of the most underappreciated feats in baseball last summer, winning 100 games while playing most of the season without their star third baseman?

"Kind of shows you how expendable everybody is," Scott Rolen deadpans.

Scott Rolen played in just 56 games last season. (AP)Scott Rolen played in just 56 games last season. (AP) It's lunchtime and -- ham sandwich and a wide-open season in front of him -- Rolen grins big. He lowers his head.

He slyly nods toward the picnic table to his right, where Walt Jocketty, St. Louis' general manager, Jerry Walker, the club's vice president for player personnel and Bruce Manno, the director of player development, are eating.

"Don't say that too loudly," he says.

So what we know of Rolen following one of the most miserable summers of his life, a summer in which the only thing more shocking than the Cardinals' success without him was the fact that it took two surgeries in three months to fix his left shoulder, is this:

Among other things, his timing sure is coming back. "I'm not going to be overdramatic about everything," he says. "I have a great job. I enjoy doing my job. It's nice to be responsible. It's nice to be accountable, to be a part of something.

"I'm not going to talk about the crack of the bat and the small of pine tar and all that ----. That's a bit teary-eyed for me.

"This is what I do, and when you can't do it ... sometimes you take your health for granted. Unfortunately, sometimes something bad happens, and it slaps somebody in the face, and they make life changes. What happened to me wasn't like that; it didn't force me to make any life changes."

But it sure did wreak havoc with his baseball life, and that's where we pick up the story on this hot February day, with Rolen again happy, healthy ... and hot on the comeback trail. He hurt the shoulder last May 10, when he collided with Hee Seop Choi during a game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three days later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery, and he was sidelined until June 17. He came back. He played in 25 more games. He batted only .207.

So he sought a second opinion, landed back on the disabled list on July 22 and underwent the knife again a short while later. This surgery was performed by Cincinnati team doctor Timothy Kremchek. Rolen's posterior labrum was torn from the bone. If you picture a clock, the tear ran from 1-6. Kremchek tacked it back onto the bone, and then repaired a tear in the front of his shoulder. The damage was significant, and the fact that it took a second surgery to find it and repair it led to more questions and emotions than your average episode of CSI.

It is a situation that remains mysterious. It doesn't take a medical degree from Harvard to know that things obviously did not go as they should have during the first surgery. But Rolen would not discuss it publicly a year ago, and this spring he again is keeping that door closed and locked.

"Nothing in the past is relevant," he says.

He arrives at the dawn of 2006 with his rehabilitation finished. What he's doing now is simply maintenance on the shoulder. He and the Cardinals are optimistic he will return to the player he once was -- which was a guy who smashed 34 homers and produced 124 RBI in 2004, and 28 and 104 in '03. Last year, in just 56 games, he batted .235 -- 49 points below his lifetime average -- with five homers and 28 RBI.

"There is a long time between now and opening day," manager Tony La Russa says. "If he plays the rest of his career like the first part of it, he has a chance to be a Hall of Famer. He's an important guy to have back on our team."

Really, as little as he was able to play and produce last season -- his shoulder remained so mangled after that first surgery that he failed to homer during any of the 25 games he played between them -- it's as if the 100-win Cardinals added a high-powered free agent over the winter.

"If we get him back it will make a huge difference in our club," Jocketty says. "It was tough to lose the guy, not only offensively but defensively as well."

A six-time Gold Glove winner, Rolen is advanced enough in his recovery that he has few limitations this spring. He's fielding ground balls. He's throwing. He's swinging, though he is trying to be smart about it and pace himself. The Cardinals will break him in slowly, perhaps not allowing him more than a small appearance or two during the first week of Grapefruit League games.

"I'm not afraid," he says. "I'm not afraid of the soreness. I'm not afraid I'm going to hurt myself. My confidence level in the baseball reflexes is there again. I've started to think, 'Swing fast.'"

As opposed to what he was thinking during those excruciating 25 games before he had his second surgery last summer. There were times, he says, when he knew he wasn't going to swing at a pitch no matter its location -- even if it was right down the middle. Sometimes the pain was so bad that he simply couldn't swing twice in a row. He'd swing, then take a pitch and give his shoulder a moment to quiet down while hoping the count wouldn't run too badly against him.

"That's a bad way to go," he says. "To take a swing, step out of the box and have to take the next pitch. Knowing I can't swing at it and hoping it's a ball. Sometimes I was taking two pitches, just to survive."

One night before undergoing the second surgery, Rolen was the leadoff batter in the bottom of the ninth of a close game -- normally a terrific situation for St. Louis because here was a guy who could smash the baseball over the fence. But going to the plate that night, he knew he couldn't do it. So he scanned the outfield before stepping in and noted that the fielders were playing "no-doubles" -- positioned to close off the gaps.

"So my approach was, 'I can't hit it over their heads, they're playing no-doubles so I couldn't hit it between them, my only shot now is with a single,'" Rolen says. "I thought, 'You know what, I have just as good a shot at bunting for a single.'"

So Rolen, all 6-feet-4, 240 pounds of him, was reduced to attempting a drag bunt. And he popped it up.

"I went and put my helmet away and sat there," he says. "It was like, 'Wow, what happened to you? You had a chance to win the game and you bunt.' "And you know what? I could justify it. If somebody were to ask, 'What are you doing?', it was a fair question. But I could justify it -- that was my best shot.

"That's sad. That's a frustrating drive home, right there."

Now, he says, the shoulder feels better than it has in years. He has rehabbed enough that he's pretty in tune with that left shoulder, too. Before last year's collision with Choi, he hurt it during a playoff game in Arizona in 2003 during a collision with Alex Cintron that left him with sprained and torn ligaments. It was bad enough that one of the physical therapists told him it looked as if he had been in an automobile accident. But don't ask him about bad luck and the possibility of further collisions, which are inevitable around a major-league infield. He's come out OK on the other side of too many other collisions, he says -- including one with Phil Nevin last summer a couple of days before he was hurt -- to think he's an accident waiting to happen.

Plus, he says, "I've hit dugouts and fences harder than I hit Choi."

So that's it. Forget last year -- the collision, the two surgeries, the countless days wondering what the heck happened and when the heck he'd be feeling good again. That time is here. And don't say it too loudly yet, but all signs are looking good for Rolen.

"I'm anxious to see," he says. "I'm feeling good now, like a normal shoulder. I can't tell you how much respect I have for Dr. Kremchek, and Hap Hudson (the long-time trainer and physical therapist who rehabbed Rolen). There's no better man than Hap Hudson.

"I can't thank both of them enough. Doc put me back together and Hap got me playing baseball again."

 


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